While its sporting theme is well implemented, The Front Nine isn’t a game about playing golf: it’s a game about building a nine-hole golf course.
It has elements of card drafting, hand management and resource collection – but also tile-laying as you each make your course in front of you on the table.
The game comes with around 60 cards, a rulebook and a few (standard quality) wooden bits. The cards aren’t of the highest quality, but they’re perfectly adequate – this isn’t a game where you’ll be doing a lot of shuffling anyway.
The ones depicting golf holes (about half of the pack) are really nicely done, but the rest of the cards are a little drab – although perfectly functional. A few odd decisions were made, but nothing game-breaking and we’ll get onto those later.
While having some really neat ideas and twists, The Front Nine blends a set of game mechanics that experienced gamers will feel very much at home with. The rulebook isn’t beautifully laid out, but I’ve had no problem with the rules themselves.
Each turn consists of four sections: market (you can buy/sell up to two resources); business (you can get a new card into your hand from the track); development (either take income from the course as it stands, as each hole and extra building (buggy, driving range etc) has an income value – or spend money to add cards to your course from your hand), and reset (restock the card track and change first player clockwise).
These steps are all as simple as they sound; and with the only hidden information being the cards you’ve picked up from the track – which was once public information anyway – it’s easy for players to ask questions as you go, and to explain cards as they come out onto the track each round. Nothing is done simultaneously, so it’s also easy to watch for new player mistakes.
At the end of the game, anyone whose final course card is within about six inches of their club house is likely to score some bonus points – and with five for the player who gets it closest, it can be significant too (a good score is in the 20-30 range). This spatial element sets The Front Nine apart and is a really ingenious use of the game’s theme.
Beyond this though, it’s very nuts and bolts – but not in a bad way. The resource buying (you need water, sand and/or trees as well as money to make the holes that give the most income) is very simple but can be tactically manipulated by a good player.
The card buying can throw up some interesting decisions – if it is a bit fiddly for my tastes (there are nine cards ‘for sale’ at the start of each round, with all sliding down to fill gaps when anyone buys – and the buys are inevitably at the cheaper end). Even the choice of whether to build or take income can cause head scratching in some rounds.
The four sides
- The writer: Despite some issues (see below), I find myself enjoying The Front Nine each time I play – and those I’ve played it with have been engaged throughout. The course layout is a neat twist on tile-laying and it should probably have a bit more of an effect on the game than a few points, but this is still a keeper.
- The thinker: While seemingly light and airy, there are important strategic decisions to be made in The Front Nine and the best player will win on the day. It’s very much a precise game as money and resources are tight, and a miscalculation of £1 could be the difference between victory and defeat. While the game does have a nice ark it does seem to play a little long for a game I would otherwise go to as a filler. And it’s nice to see such an original theme, even if it may ultimately harm sales and scare off a larger publisher from taking an interest.
- The trasher: Who’d have thought a game about golf would be so cut-throat?! Resources are a key battleground, as there’s a finite number of each. In a two-player game there is only three of each available – and some holes need three of a resource to lay. This makes it a no-brainer to grab and sit on one, even if you don’t need it, because with a tight hand limit of three cards – and it costing £1 to discard one – you can’t just take cards willy-nilly. I’m not keen on the theme, but this is a game I’ll play if someone suggests it.
- The dabbler: This one isn’t really for me. I love the novel course building element, but beyond that I find it too long, too heads down and too dry. That’s all she wrote!
While the card quality isn’t terrible, the shininess of them means they slide around the table with gay abandon – which isn’t great in a game where you’re not meant to move the course cards once you’ve laid them.
The shiny problem is also a pain in terms of the clubhouse cards, which double up as your money and resource counter. This means you are constantly fiddling with it, and it’s constantly moving – I find myself wanting to reach for the sellotape! Worse still the clubhouse has a nice looking image buried under the score tracks which would’ve added a nice bit of extra theme to the course on the table too. Would it really have broken the bank to add four more cards, or scrap the scoring reminder side of the player aid?
A bigger concern is game length – which can easily stretch to two hours if you’re not the fastest group. This isn’t excessive, but while the game does have a nice narrative ark (your decisions evolve as your income improves, you see what others are going for etc) it also has something of a soggy middle. I expect this is due to theme – The Front Six wouldn’t work as well – but I think the game would benefit from having a few fewer holes.
This may be an isolated incident, but I also found one half of my wooden game box is slightly too small for the cards – meaning several are already marked and it is hell to get them out. As wood has a tendency to warp a little over time anyway, I can only see this getting worse. I really see no reason for the wooden box at all, as it looks a little cheap anyway – I’d have definitely preferred boring old cardboard.
Finally, I’m not really sure The Front Nine this will appeal to golf fans outside of the gaming hobby – which is a shame. It’s just a little too complicated – and long – for no-gamers. It may well have been worth coming up with a much simpler version of the game (using the same components, keeping the layout aspect but reigning in the drafting) and popping that in too, using this as an ‘advanced’ version.
Overall The Front Nine is a good game, adding a novel and thematic twist to a nice set of standard card and euro game tropes. But it should’ve been (and maybe in a future incarnation will be) even better.
I guess this is nearly always what happens with a small first time publisher. You can’t expect them to make all the right decisions, both in terms of gameplay and components, but the game has to be judged against the market so these things need to be noted. That said, this is the kind of game that does need to go to Kickstarter or be made by a small publisher, as it’s a theme I doubt a bigger publisher would touch with a barge poll.
So in conclusion, if you’re a fan of golf and a gamer I think this is a must – and if you like card games with a spatial element and a bit of tactical resource/card management it’s definitely worth a look. It sells for less than £20 and is available direct from the publisher, who you can email on sales @ museinteriors.co.uk (without the spaces, obviously).
* I would like to thank designer Nick Case for providing a copy of the game for review.